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There are some things too important to be left to the market

The text below is the opening keynote speech given by Unite the Union General Secretary, Len McCluskey, at Class's first national conference on 2 November, 2013 at Congress House. Please check against delivery - video to follow shortly.

Thanks to CLASS for organising this conference. And for putting me on this platform

I was relieved to see in a poll this week – and I’ve not had much good news this week – that trade union leaders are more trusted than politicians – Angela?

But before you get too relaxed Frances and Seamus – I know that you are a member of the NUJ as well as Unite, and the same poll found that even politicians are more trusted than journalists.

Well, I have to say after the reporting of Unite’s recent struggles, I can well understand why!

Unite is proud to support CLASS. I say this every time I speak at a CLASS event, so forgive me for saying it again.

But it is important to understand that Unite’s support for CLASS does not impact on its independence. This think tank should feel free to pose awkward questions for Unite and other unions, for it is the critical debate of diverse progressive views that is essential in today’s world.

We want to see its role developed still further in the period up to the next General Election.

Because that election will determine the Political Economy of Britain for the foreseeable future.

It will determine if the lessons of the crash of 2008 have been learned, and if we are able to turn a corner towards a different way of organising our economy and, indeed, our society.

So Unite will continue to back CLASS, and I hope many more people and organisations will do so. That way its work can be improved still further.

You would expect me to say something here about Grangemouth. In fact, it is deeply relevant that I do. Because the events of the last few weeks really tell us all we need to know about our Political Economy 2013.

It reveals the almost unlimited power of private ownership, the right of one man to do as he wants with a vital national economic asset, even to the point of closing it down regardless of the consequences.

It highlights the vast legal disadvantages trade unions labour under in trying to protect members’ pay and conditions.

It shows the weakness of politicians and their incapacity to act under conditions of capitalist globalisation.

In fact, it sums up the vast inequality of power – not just income – which is the product of the neo-liberal domination of our thinking and our politics from 1979 onwards.

It shows that, despite the bankers’ crisis, we have yet to move on.

Indeed, if you think that the very same week as INEOS were doing their worst, two hedge funds took over the Co-Operative Bank, you could say we are even moving backwards.

But we can at least say the elite are starting to get the wind up them. Nothing else can explain the hysterical reaction to Ed Miliband’s conference speech.

What Ed suggested was welcome but, by the standards of the not-too distant past, hardly ultra-radical.

Control of energy prices for a year and a half

And action against property developers who don’t build on their land.

Two measures which would help ordinary people stay warm in winter, and would help our children have a better chance of a roof over their heads.

Yet even this mild transgression against the dogmas of the market was met with howls of rage.

It was Bolshevism.

It was Stalin taking on the kulaks.

It was even – still worse - “back to the 70s”

To which my only answer to the Tories might be – Yes, but only the 1970s. Your ideology is taking us back to the 1870s, and the days of pure free-market liberalism, with no role for the state, no social safety net, and no curb on the bosses’ power.

But of course, what Ed Miliband has proposed is not really a 1970s agenda at all. Indeed, in the 1970s, it would have raised an eyebrow on Liverpool Docks for its moderation.

But it is a start that needs building on. What is particularly important is the underlying rationale for what Ed has proposed:

There are some things too important to be left to the market.

Our challenge is to build on that insight.
The public are certainly asking us to.
And even John Major, that notable Marxist thinker, has realised that there is something in it.

Look at the results of the CLASS opinion poll, published for this conference.

  • Big majorities want control over energy and transport prices
  • Most also want action to control rents
  • Most people – including most Tories – don’t think enough has been done to prevent another banking crash
  • And – most important of all in my book – big majorities want the Royal Mail, Railways, Energy companies and the NHS all to be brought back into full public ownership
  • Again, interestingly most Conservative voters want to bring back British Rail!

Here is a Political Vision which is popular and could easily be put into action.

A Political Vision which says we are a community, not just a marketplace

Which puts the public first, rather than vested interest

Of course, the CLASS poll also makes it clear we have not won all arguments. In shows that a narrow majority still want to stick with the Tory austerity spending limits.

Although with a sharp gender gap…the backward blokes say stick with the Coalition cuts, while women are by a clear majority for Labour abandoning them!

So there is more work to be done.

But we can see a clear line of march to a new political economy.

How do we get there?

Well, that is not a matter of argument alone.

We can develop the best plan in the world, but we can’t expect our enemies to suddenly have a conversion on the road to Damascus and say “yes, the left has got it right, we’ve been blind all along.”  Charles Moore.

We know that if we challenge the market and the power of capitalism we are going to have to fight every step of the way…

Although having said that, on the least level playing field in Europe.

And that is why I take a measure of comfort from the attacks of the last week on my union.

We are being attacked because we are a threat.  For the media “ugly trade unionism” merely means effective trade unionism.
So we are going to carry on making sure that bad bosses have no place to hide.

And we are also going to put at the heart of our political work the need to secure new laws which guarantee trade union freedom and the rights of workers to stand up to the outrageous pressure of the employers.

So, yes

Build a million homes

Scrap the austerity agenda

Take the trains and the post office back into public ownership

Curb the energy monopolies

Get a public investment bank up and running

But above all let’s remember one thing

A progressive political economy needs strong, thinking, fighting trade unions

Trade unions that are effective.

So I ask each and every one of you here to support Unite in its struggle today.

So together we can see off not just this miserable Coalition, but all of the abuses that scar our society.